2000 children and adolescents are said to be diagnosed with cancer every year in Uganda. Reports further indicate that majority of these suffer deadly complications while others succumb to the scourge due late diagnosis.
As Uganda joins the rest of the world in creating awareness about childhood cancer this September, we caught up with Dr. Joyce Balagadde, the Head of Pediatric Oncology at the Uganda Cancer Institute for more insight into the subject.
For starters, Dr Balagadde noted that the Institute is taking the awareness initiative and they have prepared series of activities that will increase awareness about various aspects of child cancer.
“Cancer is the leading cause of death for children and adolescents worldwide. Approximately, 300,000 children aged 0-19 years of age get cancer every year,” she said.
She said that the most common cancers from a global perspective among children are brain, kidney and lymphoma, however, in Uganda and at the Uganda Cancer Institute, leukemia, burkitt lymphoma, kidney cancers and cancers of the muscle take the lead.
95% of the cause of most cancers, Balagadde said, is not known, however, some are inherited and others are developed due to underlying health conditions in children.
“4 out of 5 children can be cured if diagnosis is done in the high income countries. However, 1 out of 5 children are expected to survive in low income countries,” she stated.
Chances of Survival
“Generally, childhood cancers can’t be prevented or screened for. The cancer prevention effort in children should rather emphasize the adoption of ideas that are known to decrease the occurrence of preventable cancer when the children become adults,” she said.
By this, children should adopt healthy behaviour like eating well, vaccination, exercising among others, Dr. Balagadde suggested.
She further noted that to reduce the occurrence of cancer in children, early and accurate diagnosis, and effective treatment with available medicines should be prioritized. Surgery and radiotherapy must be timely too.
Dr. Jackson Orem, the Institute Executive Director, stressed that for some cancers, especially those caused by infections like cervical cancer, early vaccination can prevent them.
He also noted that one can get exposed to some of the cancers during childhood which will spring up complications during adulthood and as such, awareness and prevention of childhood cancers is key.
Health Care System status Versus Cancer
In low income countries like Uganda, the lack of diagnosis leads to cancer deaths where 70% of children with cancers die.
Also, misdiagnosis, obstacles in accessing care like lack of transport, unaffordable or abandonment of treatment, drug shortages and use of poor quality medicines, lack of consistent adherence to treatment among others, can lead to death according to Dr Balagadde.
How Covid-19 has affected Cancer Treatment
It’s no doubt that the prevailing Covid-19 situation has affected children and adolescents with cancer and their families, considering the lockdown, transport restrictions and the toll these have taken on household earnings.
“Despite all the challenges, Uganda is joining the rest of the world in the midst of the pandemic to turn Uganda gold. The gold ribbon is a symbol for all forms of cancer affecting children and adolescents,” Balagadde explained.
UCI is spearheading scientific activities to increase awareness of adolescent and childhood cancer with their partners like DFCU bank, Uganda Cancer Society among others.
The campaign, she said, will be pushed and broadcast on various media platforms.
Currently, there are 2 specialist oncologists, 5 medical officers and 23 nurses at the UCI, an improvement from the previous 15 nurses.
In 2018, the World Health Organisation launched a global initiative for child cancers with a goal to achieve at least a 60% survival of all children in low income countries globally by 2030.